Legendary A.T. hiker Grandma Gatewood continues to motivate

Local storyteller Nancy Reeder presented Grandma Gatewood Returns at Macon County Public Library April 13 as part of its “Walking With Spring” programs to complement Franklin’s AT-Mile110 Celebration.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Grandma Gatewood

As Appalachian Trail (A.T.) northbound hikers stop in Franklin for a respite after hiking 110 miles from the starting point in Springer Mountain, Ga., many point out that they have read – or at least heard about – the legendary A.T. hiker known as “Grandma Gatewood.” 

Recently, at the Macon County Public Library as part of its “Walking With Spring” programs, local storyteller Nancy Reeder presented “Grandma Gatewood Returns,” about Emma Rowena (Caldwell) Gatewood, born Oct. 25, 1887. She became legendary because although she was a farmer’s wife and the mother of 11 children, in 1955 she also became the first solo female thru-hiker of the 2,200-mile A.T. at the age of 67. Plus, she became the first person (male or female) to hike the trail three times, the last time as a section hiker, finishing at age 77. 

Before hiking the A.T. the first time, she reportedly told her grown children she was simply “going for a walk.” Gatewood slung a homemade sack over her shoulder, foraged for berries and edible plants when she ran out of food, and sung the first verse of “America the Beautiful” when she reached Mount Katahdin in Maine the first time she completed the A.T. Into her 80s, she continued to help clear sections of the A.T. She died in 1973 at age 85.

At the April 13 library event, Reeder presented as a storyteller the history of Gatewood. 

“By sharing her life through her eyes as her, I hoped the audience felt this powerful aspect of storytelling,” explained Reeder. 

Even though she has shared about Gatewood through storytelling in the past, Reeder prepared for the April 13 event by getting to “ know her even better.” She studied “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail,” by Ben Montgomery, and “visited the places she loved: Gallipolis, Ohio, and Hocking Hills State Park, also in Ohio.  … her favorite place to hike was a six-mile stretch from Old Man’s Cave to the Ash Cave at the Hocking Hills State Park, about an hour’s drive from Gallipolis. She was part of the founding group that created the Buckeye Trail that extends all over the state and includes this six miles.”

Reeder also studied, though library collections at the Gallipolis Bossard Memorial Library,  Gatewood’s published notebook entries, newspaper articles she collected, as well as her poems.

Reeder pointed out that Gatewood’s story continues to inspire and encourage. “We, as a people of this country, have often forgotten what we are. She was a lover of the beauty that surrounds us. Grandma helped to open our eyes to what is life.”

A lifelong educator and storyteller, Reeder added that researching Gatewood’s life and then offering a storytelling presentation about the hiker was also personally inspiring.

“As I began reading the book and preparing for this first session, I realized I wanted to become her. I had already hiked the entire trail [A.T.], and in some sections of the book, I could recall certain places.”

During the presentation, Reeder portrayed “in character” Grandma Gatewood for about 45 minutes, even answering questions as Gatewood.

Although numerous books and blogs have been written by A.T. hikers as testimonies to the challenges and rewards of completing the 2,200-mile hike, Gatewood’s story continues to encourage modern-day hikers decades later. 

The library’s “Walking With Spring” programs were created to complement Franklin’s AT-Mile110 Celebration, which began the first day of spring and ends on Earth Day.